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The Radar’s at a New High

The Radar's at a New High

It’s the age-old question for music buffs: do you rejoice or reject when your favorite underground artists suddenly become more popular and mainstream? Over the last two years, it seems to be an increasingly common issue… and it’s time to figure out what’s to blame, or acclaim.

A collection of bands that have spent the last decade building devoted college radio followings are now finding themselves in everything from Top 40 radio to TV commercials to The O.C. And, increasingly, this is a trend that could either spell a new age in what is considered “indie rock,” or rename it “endie rock,” as it all comes crashing down.

A few examples:
– In the spring of 2004, Modest Mouse (despite being on a major label for a few years) found their profile swell to unprecedented levels thanks in large part to a single called “Float On.” It gave them their first platinum-selling album, and airplay on Top 40 outlets… something longtime fans of the band would have never imagined, especially considering they were near break-up shortly before recording this recent release, Good News For People Who Love Bad News (a title more appropriate than they even knew).

– After spending much of 2004 with legions of new fans, thanks in large part to shout-outs on Fox series The O.C., indie popsters Death Cab For Cutie see that year’s release, Transatlanticism, break through like never before. This is only helped by parallel success for Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard’s side project, Postal Service. The result? Death Cab For Cutie signs with major label Atlantic Records for an album to be released Fall 2005.

– Thanks to not one but two tracks on the Grammy-winning, chart-scaling soundtrack to the film Garden State, The Shins continue to ride the wave of success begun in 2003 with their breakthrough disc, Chutes Too Narrow. The band spends 2005 prepping their next album.

– Conor Oberst, a.k.a. Bright Eyes, finds himself in uncharted territory when growing acclaim for a 2002 album called Lifted lands him on tour with Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., and more to stump for John Kerry during the 2004 election. Oberst fares relatively better than Kerry. While the band is in its brightest pop spotlight, Bright Eyes releases two LPs in January 2005 and tours 2,000-capacity venues.

– Merge Records has become the “little label that could.” First, they capped 2004 and began 2005, with the hottest indie rock band in North America, The Arcade Fire. This Canadian collective managed to use strong word-of-mouth and receptive Internet followings to sell buckets-worth. Meanwhile, labelmates Spoon’s 2002 release, Kill The Moonlight, has sold approximately 84,000 copies to date. But their recently released follow-up, Gimme Fiction, sold 20,000 copies last week when it was first dropped to stores. While not Kelly Clarkson-sized numbers… this is very impressive for an independent release. Keep an eye open for Merge act The Clientele, who are primed to follow the trend with their slow-burning college radio following. Plus, Portastatic (featuring Mac, the label’s main man) should hit the spotlight hard with a new album in August.

– Godfathers of what we now consider “indie rock” decide to cash in on the newfound phenomenon by charting once-unlikely reunions. The Pixies spend the better parts of 2004 and 2005 on the road (often headlining festivals), without one mainstream hit single nor plans for a new studio album. Meanwhile, Dinosaur Jr. reissues three original LPs (on Merge Records, no less) and tours despite member Lou Barlow’s greater success in Folk Implosion, Sebadoh, and solo.

– Bands that I predict will be next: Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists, and Built to Spill. Band that deserves it the most but don’t hold your breath: Sonic Youth.

And the list could go on and on… but my question is, why this phenomenon? Is it merely another part of the always-cyclical music industry? Or, is it a sign of the times? Or both? While The O.C. doesn’t deserve too much credit, it would be hard to deny that recent advances like iTunes, Internet radio, and satellite radio are very responsible. When anyone on Earth (and beyond) can listen to Nic Harcourt’s carefully tastemaking programming on KCRW, it certainly has an impact.

Or, it helps when the 5% of Americans who actively listen to satellite radio get acts like Tegan and Sara randomly blended amongst more MTV-friendly groups like Destiny’s Child. Or, when satellite radio manages to offer dozens of stations solely devote to “alternative” rock, you’re going to start some passionate fanbases. And iTunes? Looking at the way Brit-rockers The Caesars are being marketed, it’s maybe more helpful to have your single used in an iTunes commercial (as their ubiquitous “Jerk It Out” was) than anything else.

Speaking of commercials, maybe that’s the phenomenon holding some of the answers. This all sounds very familiar, if we recall a sensation that occurred in the late 1990s. TV ad agencies decided to use obscure songs instead of the go-to catchy pop hits or ready-made jingles we usually hear with advertisements. Nick Drake, anyone? An entire generation was introduced to the cult-fave singer-songwriter, thanks to a Volkswagen commercial. It was such a resounding reception from a few seconds of his song, “Pink Moon,” that the album of the same name was reissued with the promo sticker reading, “As Heard in the Volkswagen Commercial.” I know, because that’s what the copy I purchased had on it (I can admit it).

This started a mini-revolution, and soon enough, VW commercials were using a new obscure song after another, trying to break artists almost as much as the new models of car. Cuts from Badly Drawn Boy, The Orb, and more began finding their way into commercial breaks. Soon enough, you had Gap commercials with Red House Painters, or Low. Before long, compilation albums were released.

There are even popular Web sites now devoted to helping eager music/TV buffs find out which song they’re hearing in between breaks for Law & Order. Perhaps the best to check out is the site, What’s That Called? How this ties into the emergence of Internet and satellite radio is simple… it illustrates that we were begging for both before technology allowed it. There was a hunger for tapping into a soundtrack that was infectious, yet unknown to the masses. Internet/satellite radio skips the middle man, which is fitting in a our commercial-less world of TiVo. No commercials necessary… now, you can get the latest indie rock straight from the source, or at least closer to it.

Okay, so bringing us back to 2005 and the topic at hand… is it the Internet that has made this revolution televised in another way? No matter what, bands that never had a prayer are now being worshipped by scores of music fans that would have never known they existed. The music isn’t necessarily all that much better, the cultural tide has simply swept them into a more inviting atmosphere.

As expansive as the Internet and satellite radio can be… aren’t they just making us feel like we’ve suddenly discovered a band no one else knows about? Meanwhile, we only know about it because we’re listening to the same thing many around the world are tuning in to. This illusion is working in the indies’ favor, though. What Internet/satellite radio provides is an exclusive feeling of ownership over some new “discovery.” And, when thousands around the world feel that similar vibe, they go out and buy the records. No matter what, deserving musicians will reap the benefits of this trend. And that’s good news for everyone, really.

Thus, things that used to be “under the radar” are now part of the spotlight. So, perhaps, it’s not that the music is any different… the radar’s just at a new high. But, for how long?

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